What's the Question?
Before 2010, I was fairly sure that ideas for stories waltzed into a writer’s head as straightforward premises: it’s a story about…well, if I could finish that sentence succinctly, this would be a different post. I had a problem: I could never think of a story about anything. But as I was struck by, and began developing, the idea that became West of Her, I figured out two key lessons that enabled me to create a full-length screenplay.
The first lesson: My best stories start with a question. I choose the movies I watch based on being tantalized—wanting, even needing, to know more about a premise. And West of Her was the first time that I found myself with a question I needed the answer to so badly, I had no choice but to write a story and find out.
That question arose in the spring of 2010, when I read a Cracked piece about unsolved mysteries, one of which was the Toynbee tiles. The entry discussed these “cryptic messages found embedded in asphalt in various cities…[all] found with variations of the same short message…suggesting we resurrect the dead on planet Jupiter…the only things setting these abnormally permanent acts of vandalism apart: They've been showing up out of nowhere, with no explanation for 30 damned years. So, what, it's one crazy guy leaving messages. No mystery there…only it can't be just one guy.”
And with that, my imagination was off and running. So who could be laying these tiles? If it’s a group, how do they operate? And what in the world would draw somebody to participate in a project like that?
As I spent the next few months rolling these questions around, my thought process wandered and roamed, coalescing into a story one fractured piece at a time. And the more the story came together, the more I realized that while I’d always tried to build plots by starting with the first scene and ending with the last, what I really needed to do was let the story develop organically. In the case of West of Her, the first piece that clicked into place was the ending. As I woke up one morning, the end of the story strolled up unbidden and announced itself, and I was so excited by it that I worked backwards. How could the story lead me to this ending? The next thing that came to me was a single image, one that became a conceptual foundation that I built the story around, and one that eventually ended up in the film almost exactly as I imagined it.
In the end, the opening scene was actually the last one I came up with, on my third draft of the story. West of Her came together piecemeal, and once I let go of my need to build a story linearly and allowed my curiosity to guide me, the work was able to flower and grow in its most natural way.
And then, in spring of 2011, I suddenly had a feature-length screenplay on my hands, one that I had a sneaking suspicion could actually make for a really special movie. But by no stretch of the imagination was I part of any type of filmmaking scene. I did know somebody who was, though.
And getting back in touch with my old friend Cam, five years after our course at the Maine Media Workshops, was the beginning of a long and winding road of pre-production. Check back next week, when I'll talk about how my plans to wade into a career turned into holding my breath, hoping for the best, and canonballing.